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Published: December 6th 2011
A lovely painted sky with the crisp night air closing in, the Ger, warm and inviting.
From Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, our thirty hour train journey saw us conquer a dry Gobi desert, two highly regimented customs inspections, and an adjustment of wheels.
Train travel is surprisingly comfortable, mind you, we’re in second class…I saw what they were up against in steerage. Our male attendants are assholes, having piled themselves into our carriage to chain smoke and gamble their night away. There is one inch of urine on the bathroom floors, and the hot water ran out long ago.
Nonetheless, The Australians wake up in the middle of the night like kids on Christmas morn as the train approaches the indoor yards to prepare for the switch up of bogies from Chinese to Mongolian gauge. Who knew train tracks came in different sizes?
Our carriage is lifted up carnival-ride high, with all of us still in it, I might add. While the regulars sleep undisturbed, we tourists do snot-art on the interior windows straining for a better look. For hours our carriage is lurched back and forth and jostled about, during at which time The Australians and I surmise a way more highly efficient solution to this particular pickle, but who are we.
Mongolian Heavy Metal
A musician plays while mesmorizing us with his traditional throat singing, at first, it startles you when you realize it's coming from him. It is very cool.
the yards for customs, I find myself gazing out a chilled window onto an endless horizon, sleepily stirring my instant Starbucks (hot water commandeered from diner car) and preparing myself mentally for another eight hours. The Australians snore unapologetically, visions of Tim Tams no doubt dancing in their heads. I can’t sleep. With every alarming jolt I am thinking, sweet Jesus, please let the new wheels be securely fastened...I’m not accustomed to giving up this much control, and it’s wearing. The only other person awake is my new little friend who shyly peeks in on me to accept a biscuit before running off. As the engineer slams the Trans Mongolian into overdrive to clickity-clack our way north, it has started to snow sideways. I miss home for just a second.
The train arrives at Ulaanbaatar before dusk settles in. The sky looks like a painting. Our UB hotel is downtown surrounded by muddy parking lots and endless karaoke bars, but perfect for easy exploration, including tracking down some local currency. Ulaanbaatar is an interesting blend of old tradition meets new money, the shiny skyscrapers jut into the sky as suburban Gers totter the outskirts. Not only do the locals
Psst, hey lady, wanna buy a Camel?
Nemo's buddies hanging out with their camels
like karaoke, but statues too….we see the likes of Chinggis Khaan, Lenin, and Damdin Sukhbaatar on our wanders.
Although reluctant, The Australians consent to a touristy cultural show at a rundown theatre on a dodgy side of town. The performers are shockingly astounding and we all sit there mesmerized by their traditional music and wicked throat singing. Afterwards, we find a typical Nomad restaurant and try to order. One hazard of not speaking the local language is you never know what you are gonna get. I won the prize for the grossest meal of the evening..a goat eyeball floating in my soup. The food here in Mongolia is definitely on the 'meat heavy' side which is okay with me, I'm Paleo curious. To burn off the excesses we stroll the chilly pitch-dark streets, there are plenty of sights and lively atmosphere around the main square. The Australians demand a mandatory stop at the pub called the Camel Toe, so we all crowd in and sit amongst drunken karaoke’rs wearing traditional riding boots with grey robes and rust sashes...everything was all yellow submarine friendly until a fisticuffs broke out a couple tables down.
Early the next morning we are
On Top of Ol Ovoo
A site meant for praying for a safe trip or journey at the entrance of Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. Buddhism is very prevelant in Mongolia, and these Ovoo sites are located everywhere.
introduced to our local guide, an absolute gem of a man, Nemosen. He is tough as nails, opinionated, and extremely Mongolian. I admit to a bit of a crush. He takes charge of our motley group, leading us to a Ger camp out in Gorkhi-Terelj. His English is flawless and he tells endless stories of being raised up in UB as we bump along the dirt highway. He’s also a doctor, but he and his wife make more money touristing & translating. A sad but honest reality when a country is wedged between two post-communist worlds. Nemo is all business, but is wearing down quickly. He didn’t count on our group being so ridiculous. Before you know it, he’s cracked a smile, and as the day wears on, hints of a playful man-boy appear. As we ride off into the hills on unruly Mongolian ponies, he and his buddies in their traditional gear, they are cracking jokes and showing off. By evening we are drinking Samogon (homemade vodka), singing classic Queen, and attempting Cossack dancing in the small confines of the diner Ger.
Sometimes when I travel, I feel like I am running against a stopwatch, trying to experience
TransMongolian berths in second class look a little cramped but were comfortable enough.
a different culture or destination before it is irrevocably altered. Luckily, Mongolia is still wild enough to satisfy my lust for originality without compromising my expectations. Our Ger camp turns out to not be as traditional as I hoped. I wanted to stay with a nomad family traipsing across the tundra following their reindeer herd, but this camp is semi-permanent and more like a homestay. I can look past this. We receive an introduction to the family units and witness standard Ger life. It becomes evidently clear how hard this life is, but also how pleasurably simple. The felt tent interiors are lovingly decorated with vivid colours and flowery details but incredibly flexible to be moved at a moments notice. In this country, women work endlessly on daily chores while the men sit around after theirs to smoke and talk. (Really though, family dinners at my house still consist of the men retiring to the sports den to drink and stick their hand down the front of their pants while the females do the clean up, so we haven’t advanced much farther). The women endlessly cook, clean and child rear, but they also giggle and enjoy watching us make fools
The Moon or Mongolia
Lovely scenes around every corner, the terrain preparing itself for a long harsh winter
of ourselves. We help them make buuz dumplings, which get sloppier as we politely sip gigantic cups of potent fermented yak milk they keep topping up.
Nemo is now officially one of us, constantly cracking jokes and fuelling our banter with witty anecdotes of the reproductive sort. This was one of his classics. A guy goes to the urologist and gets an x-ray. The doctor comes out and says "You are very lucky, you have three testicles.” The next day the guy is sitting next to his friend and says "Between us we have five testicles." The friend looks surprised and says, "You only have one?"
Urologist Nemo laughs himself silly.
As the crisp night sky brings out a million twinkling stars, we all retire. I’ve got my mandatory Mongolian red cheeks and fat dumplings sit satisfactorily in my stomach, I will sleep good tonight. However, as I enter our sleep Ger, the smell of wet horse assaults my senses….the pungency beyond your imagination, it takes some getting used to, but it is cozy warm and comfy. I volunteer to wake up in the middle of the night to stoke the dying fire, a chore I always cherish,
UB train station
Lit up for the night, the UB train station our staging point to continue on to Siberia.
it reminds me of home. Howling winds shake the Ger all night long, but unsuccessfully penetrate the felted walls. Nothing is heard from The Australians, other than the one who pees into a bottle so he doesn't have to face the long haul out to the drop toilets at 3 am. Geez, we were perfect strangers not even 4 days ago and already intimate acts such as these are becoming the norm.
The stark terrain of this beige wasteland is not offensive to me, I know it's the Mongolian countryside only preparing itself for a long, harsh winter ahead. I allow myself to picture how it would be in the summer months, lush hills of green that smell of honey with meadows of wild flowers as far as the eye can see, the crazy horses and reindeer would be at pasture with a million mosquitoes and biting flies buzzing overhead. Fast forward to present, and these days are short but sunny, we hike and horseback everywhere finding lovely vantagepoints to take it all in. One of the best was the Aryapala Buddhist retreat tucked high in the hills, our ascend is rewarded with a spectacular terrace view.
Trasping cross the Gobi desert
Endless skies and land as we make our way cross the Gobi.
is a wealth of knowledge on the Mongolian psyche and shares the beliefs of his peoples while we hike, in particular certain superstitions that are still carried out daily amongst. He explains most parents won't cut the hair of their children until age 3 or so, some won't name their child, or become extremely offended if you call their child cute. This all brought on by a severe fear evil spirits may steal their children away. Strict rules such as whistling in a Ger, or exposing your wrists, touching another person’s hat, or not lingering in a doorway are pretty serious offences, and as expected, The Australians manage to hit every no-no with precision, which is met with friendly smiles of acceptance.
Mongolians are such a contradiction of personalities, with their hard tough exteriors I deduce they must be this way in order to survive the harshest of climates in this world, but there is a soft tender heart of a Buddhist underneath that only craves a peaceful co-existive harmony within their environment and peoples. Each Mongolian we are introduced to is fantastically lovely and hospitality kind.
Nemo’s buddies, Askaa, Naran and Bat 2 return to visit, this
This little cutie was a monkey, everytime we tried out our Mongolian on her, she was shriek and run away.
time challenging us to an archery duel. Their practice range is made of yak hides stretched over feeble frames. The Australians are naturally competitive and excitedly banter while we all take turns trying out our archery skills. With most weapons, I’m a pretty decent left-handed mark, but Nemo is astounded at how skilful I am, stating I’d be worth at least three camels for marriage. Good to know.
Oh yes and I forgot to mention, The Australians fuss endlessly with an ominous fear they may freeze at any given moment. My tolerance for this endless layering and unlayering all day long is wearing....when it suddenly dawns on me...they probably have never experienced a typical winter, have they? None of them grew up with an ice rink in their backyard, stuck their tongue to a metal pole, tobogganed down an 87% grade, or got face-washed beyond recognition. So Nemo and I both take the liberty of introducing a double face-wash to an unsuspecting Australian coming back from the toilet. Never too late to be fully inducted, I always say.
Our last day at the Ger camp, I roll my ankle. On the positive, I did do this fantastic recovery
Every Step More Meaningful
As you make your way up to the Buddhist Monastery, you pass signs that have thought provoking messages on them.
cartwheel ending flat on my back with bits of landscape stuck to me. Good thing we leave tonight for an overnight train to Ulan Ude, Siberia, the downtime will help with the swelling. Nemo packs my ankle with snow and takes us back to UB. We manage to do some last minute sightseeing, grocery shopping, and in and out of the museums. Our favourite Mongolian randomly returns to offer us a ride to the train station, but traffic is gridlocked and seriously, it would have been faster to walk. We almost miss our train saying our goodbyes. Nemo thrusts a strange brown concoction in a pickle jar at me. He sternly gives me instructions on how to apply it to my now obviously sprained ankle. He hops off the carriage just as the brakes release, and stands on the platform waving frantically with his wife and kids. Once again, it is the people I meet along the way that make my trips most memorable....but this wild, unforgiving Mongolian frontier I will never forget.
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